South Sudan’s Peace Deal Is Not Worth the Paper It’s Printed On
Factions still want to fight
War and rain don’t mix. This is especially true in South Sudan, where paved roads are rare and monthly precipitation can reach 20 centimeters during the rainy season.
On May 9, the warring factions of Pres. Salva Kiir—pictured above—and his former deputy Riek Machar signed a ceasefire agreement. But observers were skeptical. The peace deal came at the beginning of the yearly rains. Both sides knew that for the next few months, fighting would be almost impossible anyway.
The ceasefire, which the factions signed in the Ethiopian capitol Addis Ababa, wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. On Aug. 10, a deadline to form a unity government passed without either party showing any desire for a political settlement.
Worse, open hostilities resumed when rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition attacked government positions in the town of Nasir in mid June. At the same time, Amnesty International reported that the government received 1,000 tons of small arms and ammunition from China.
Both sides seem to be maneuvering for the best starting position for September, when the rains will subside and all-out conflict again will be possible.
The international community has woken up to this danger. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the passing of the August deadline “an outrage and an insult” to South Sudanese.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has threatened further sanctions against both camps, should they continue to ignore the political process. Both the European Union and the United States already have sanctions in place against members of the government and the opposition.
But tighter sanctions against South Sudan probably are unrealistic, as is the expectation that economic measures would end the crisis. The U.N. Security Council in theory has the power to put the country under a complete arms embargo and also sanction certain individuals.
The U.N. did this in Somalia, for example. But in the case of South Sudan, the initiative for these far-ranging measures will have to come from the region itself. China, a Security Council member, has substantial oil interests in South Sudan in addition to its weapons deals and won’t accept sanctions if South Sudan’s neighbors don’t also support them. Russia also could be reluctant.
Uganda already has taken sides in the conflict, dispatching thousands of soldiers plus tanks and modern fighter aircraft to fight Machar’s rebels. These would have to depart in the case of an arms embargo, a measure that neither Kiir’s government nor Uganda will accept.
An embargo on South Sudan’s oil sector could be even more effective in forcing a resolution—after all, oil is what the fighting is all about. But because both Sudan and Kenya profit from the trade of landlocked South Sudan’s oil and China is the biggest customer, this is a wholly unrealistic proposition.
Even in the case of strict sanctions, both Kiir and Machar each could come to the conclusion that their respective military power could hand them the ultimate victory. If one or both believes he can win, he might not care what the world thinks.
This is unrealistic, of course. As plenty of resistance movements in Africa and elsewhere have demonstrated time and time again, it’s virtually impossible to stamp out an armed uprising if its supporters remain determined, borders are porous and the terrain is rough. The fighting in South Sudan could drag on for years.
Meanwhile, aid organizations warn that the country is headed for the world’s worst famine since the 1980s, when more than a million people died of hunger in East Africa. Already, 50,000 children are in danger of dying from malnutrition, according to reports.
The situation is dire, because the heavy rains and occasional fighting have made it difficult for aid organizations to reach populations displaced by fighting. The end of the rainy season could make things easier … if the conflict doesn’t heat up again.
Should serious fighting resume, it not only will put a severe strain on relief operations, it also could keep thousands of farmers from their fields, dramatically worsening the situation in the months to come.